Ever wanted to go beyond the traditional italian facade? Delve into somewhere new through this guide to Turin, a new destination for your future travel plans.
Since the day I arrived in Turin two months ago, it has only rained once. Excluding a few days of light snow in late January, every other day has been relentless sunshine. While I’m told this is highly unusual for the area, and, let’s face it, probably due to climate change, it certainly makes a change from cloudy England.
I’m currently doing an internship at the Egyptian Museum in Turin as part of my year abroad. The Museo Egizio here possesses the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside Cairo which, while delving into the museum’s history might seem random, it does result in an impressive gallery space.
Turin is often overlooked by European visitors as simply a gateway to the ski slopes of the Alps further north; in fact I’m almost certain every English person I heard on the flight over was about to take a train straight to the mountains. But it doesn’t take living here to realise that the city has a lot to offer.
Most commonly associated with Juventus and the car companies Fiat and Alfa Romeo among others, Turin is often thought of as purely industrial. However, few know that Turin was the very first capital of the Kingdom of Italy when the country was unified in 1861, which gives the Torinese some bragging rights. Indeed some say they’re even snootier than the Milanese, although it must be said their fashion sense isn’t quite as good. Before 1861, the city was home to the Royal House of Savoy, a royal family that blessed Turin with culture, art and fabulous Baroque architecture. Because of this, Turin is full of cultural attractions, lots of which don’t even appear in the guidebooks.
Among these are several royal palaces with interiors modelled in Versailles style, producing an endless selection of ornate red and gold rooms. There are plenty of museums dedicated to a wide range of subjects including cinema, anthropology, oriental art and the human anatomy. My favourite so far has been the Royal Armoury which contains the largest collection of weaponry I’ve ever seen, dating from the Roman era to the 20th century. It features a gigantic hall filled with suits of armour mounted on stuffed horses, and hundreds of intricately engraved swords.
The signature building of Turin which appears on every postcard is the Mole Antonelliana, a former synagogue, the spire of which is the tallest object in the city. Apparently the architect Antonelli, after whom the building is named, became so obsessed with making the building even taller that the Jewish community got bored of waiting and so it was handed over to the state. As in Spain, the square, or piazza, plays a sizeable role in Turin life. The grand piazzas in the centre of town are full of shops and cafes, while those slightly further out act as meeting points for young people on Friday and Saturday nights. The great architect Renzo Piano, from the nearby city of Genoa, has lent his hand to several projects in Turin. These include the conversion of the old Fiat factory on whose roof the iconic scene from The Italian Job was filmed, and coincidentally the skyscraper next to my apartment.
I now need to dedicate a paragraph to the food. So far ice cream has been the standout winner. No matter what the weather, the Torinese are always down for some gelato. All the good gelaterias keep the ice cream in steel cylinders set into the counter to keep it at the perfect temperature, and when serving they have a particular way of whipping the ice cream against the side of the container with a flat scoop which gets air into the mixture to make it extra fluffy and creamy. Most of the pizza here is made in the Napoli style, with thick, chewy dough. The locals do also genuinely eat pizza quite often as far as I’m aware, although I must admit not as often as me. The traditional pasta is agnolotti, similar to ravioli and usually stuffed with roasted meat. Being just a medium-sized city, Turin is not all that multicultural and so can’t compete with the variety of restaurants you might be used to, but if you are looking for Chinese, Japanese or Thai food it can easily be found.
The day of an Italian typically revolves around meal times. First, no one will leave home in the morning without having had some form of breakfast. The average number of coffee breaks taken per day is probably three. Lunch is nearly always a sit-down affair. Hurriedly eating a sandwich on the way to your next meeting is not done and would not be classified as lunch. In the evening, locals will head to an aperitivo bar at around 7 where they’ll have cocktails (vermouth is from Turin) or wine and snacks like focaccia, salads or cured meats. Many spots have a buffet which you can go up to as many times as you like for 2 or 3 euros plus the cost of your drink. After this, if they somehow still have room, they’ll roll off to a restaurant for another three courses.
Last but not least, Turin has a number of useful holes in the wall with vending machines in them which are open 24 hours a day, so you can find something to eat even when you get the munchies on the way back from the club at 5am.
While the city is more than used to dealing with tourists, and you can expect all the customary associated infrastructure, I can say that during the two months I’ve been here, I can count the number of times I’ve heard English outside the museum on the fingers of one hand. I would estimate that only around half the population can speak English.
Turin has seen a reasonable degree of immigration, in the past from Southern Italy and more recently from North Africa, which has added an interesting dimension to life here. However, it seems that the long arms of globalisation haven’t wrapped themselves around the city the way they have around Rome, Venice or Florence.
Turin has retained an individual character and atmosphere, so it doesn’t feel like just another European city. At work, I am expected to say “ciao” to every person I come across, and people are surprised when these customs are not upheld. It is this authenticity that sets this city apart from its rivals.
So if you are planning a trip to Italy, while it may be tempting to immediately think of this city’s more famous counterparts Milan or Rome, you could do a lot worse than visiting Turin.